Howes: FCA's Detroit skeptics deserve answers

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV plans to invest $1.6 billion to convert two Detroit engine plants into the new Mack Avenue Assembly Complex on the city's east side. The plant would build next-gen Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV says it wants to invest $4.5 billion and create nearly 6,500 new jobs, chiefly in Detroit.

The response is telling: official elation at the prospective economic boom gives way to a healthy dose of suspicion from community members wary of how the construction and subsequent expansion might disrupt and reshape their east side neighborhood.

You’d think this kind of stuff happened all the time in the Motor City — automaker plunks down billions to assemble Jeep SUVs, and the overall financial impact promises to fatten everything from incomes to property taxes. But it doesn’t happen all the time. In fact, it hasn’t in nearly 30 years, a historic fact worth remembering. 

This is Detroit’s new virtuous circle, a marker of the sustainability of its reinvention. In less than a year, the city that put America on wheels has landed two huge auto-led investments that could help legitimize the city's comeback narrative and drive the revitalization of two neighborhoods on either side of the downtown corridor.

That's progress, especially in a town where residents keeping asking, "What about the neighborhoods?" Part of the answer is derived from FCA's plans along Conner, from Ford Motor Co.'s vision for Corktown campus devoted to autonomous- and electric-vehicle development, from the Kresge Foundation-led redevelopments on and around the campus of Marygrove College.

But the legacy of corporate abandonment, coupled with the more recent history of unfulfilled promises on such projects as the Ilitch family's District Detroit development, is prompting two words from skeptics: show us. And like it or not, FCA and Ford’s redevelopment of the Michigan Central Depot will need to do just that.

Do what you say you're going to do. Honor your commitments. Demonstrate by actions that being a good corporate citizen is equal parts partnership, leadership and candor. Understand that generations of de-industrialization and disinvestment, followed by billions in private-sector investment in the wake of the city's Chapter 9 bankruptcy, can generate mistrust. 

Neighborhood meetings like the ones happening this week and next to develop a community benefit agreement with FCA — all to meet a tight project timeline — mean little if the details aren't honored, if fears aren't acknowledged, if misconceptions aren't answered with facts delivered in simple language.    

"With any major project, there's a lack of trust and concern about transparency," said City Councilman Andre Spivey, whose District 4 includes FCA's Jefferson North Assembly and the proposed Mack Assembly nearby. "Over the next six weeks, we're going to have to do a lot of educating so people know what we have here. This could have gone anywhere."

He's right. But the FCA incorporated in the Netherlands, headquartered in Britain and effectively controlled by an Italian holding company, Exor SpA, is doubling down on its adopted hometown here, an unambiguous play tying the iconic Jeep brand to American industrial authenticity. That's narrative cred Detroit couldn't buy at just about any price.

Still, residents of this Big Company town have legitimate reasons to be suspicious of Big Companies. Over the years, they've merged and bolted for other states, collapsed into bankruptcy, moved to the suburbs and failed to keep promises tied to new development. Ford, founded in Detroit in 1903 by Henry Ford, abandoned its Renaissance Center digs in the late '90s after GM bought the complex for pennies on the dollar.

"Some of the questioning that exists comes from people's real-life experiences," said Sheila Cockrel, principal of Crossroads Consulting, who served on City Council for 16 years. "There's a Ford culture, and embedded in that culture is an ethos ... that is genuinely committed to being part of the community. Ford is absolutely doing it the right way."

Opportunities like these don't come around often, not for a city burdened by an epic history of decline, population loss and political dysfunction. That the likes of FCA and Ford, the Ilitch companies and mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert's business empire, are investing heavily in Detroit signals a collective assessment that Detroit's worst days are in the past.

A "sorting process," as Cockrel called it, remains. What exactly are the "community benefits" and how are they differentiated from corporate obligations tied to redevelopment? Who qualifies and for what? How will the neighborhood be changed and will homes be taken, a vestige of the Poletown debacle of 30 years ago that city officials say will not be repeated in connection with the FCA plant plan?

These are questions, and more, that community members, city officials and FCA representatives can — and should — tackle with transparency and urgency because chances like this come along once in a generation, if that.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.